Tsuneishi Keiichi: Unit 731 and the Japanese Imperial Army’s Biological Warfare Program

Japan's Unit 731 remains central to the fiercely contested China-Japan controversy over war crimes and war memory, and to the international debate on science and ethics. With a staff of more than 10,000, including many of Japan’s top medical scientists, 731 and its affiliated units conducted human experiments, including vivisection, on Chinese and other victims in Manchukuo and throughout China between 1933 and 1945. The experiments tested, among other things, the lethality of biological weapons and sought to determine the ability of the human body to survive in the face of various pathogens and in conditions such as extreme cold.

Tsuneishi Keiichi is Japan's leading specialist on biowarfare. His voluminous studies conducted over thirty years in Japan, China, the United States and Europe, have provided core material for all writing hitherto on the Ishii Network. In the following careful resumé essay, he concentrates on organization and function, omitting much of the horrific detail covered elsewhere. Drawing on Japanese military records, this study documents the deaths of 850 victims in the years up to 1943, the largest number infected with plague, cholera, and epidemic hemorrhagic fever. It also makes use of American records and interviews.

Unit 731 not only conducted tests but also led the way in waging biological warfare on numerous occasions throughout the war, the best documented being attacks on Ningbo and throughout Zhejiang province. As in the case of the Nanjing Massacre and the “comfort women,” casualty figures remain contested. The figure of 3,000 persons exterminated at Pingfan, the major experiment site of the Ishii Network, is widely accepted among specialists for the period ending in 1945. The post-surrender destruction by the Japanese authorities both of the research sites and the military documents, has made precise casualty estimates difficult.

As Tsuneishi documents, attacks in Zhejiang resulted in more than 10,000 Japanese military casualties including the death of 1,700 Japanese soldiers, revealing the difficulty of waging effective biowarfare. No estimate is provided here of Chinese deaths. a reminder of contemporary practice in providing only American body counts in Iraq, but also of the difficulty of establishing Chinese casualties.

Japan’s grim experiment with biowarfare pales in comparison with the estimated 10-30 million Chinese who died as a result of war and associated conditions of famine in the years 1931-45. But the findings of Ishii and his colleagues were important enough for American authorities to grant immunity from prosecution in exchange for evidence of the research findings of Unit 731. The 731 scientists, who were evacuated to Japan prior to the defeat, continued their careers as eminent figures in the postwar medical and scientific establishment.

To read Prof. Tsuneishi's article click on the SOURCE link above.

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